Building a Better Mousetrap

Over my career, I’ve worked with lots of organizations – businesses, schools, and nonprofits – who focused obsessively on product or service quality. “Build a better mousetrap,” they reasoned, “and the world will beat a path to your door.”

But I’ve learned that this can be a dangerous mindset: Building a better mousetrap in no way means that you’re going to be successful in the mouse-catching business. Here are a few other mousetrap quotes that I would counter with:

Before you build a better mousetrap, it helps to know if there are any mice out there.

– Anonymous

It’s very easy to fall in love with a product or service without considering whether it meets a real need. You could build the best broadcasting program in the world, but there’s not much point if there are no broadcasting jobs in your area, and/or if you can’t find any students interested in becoming broadcasters. Before you start inventing, think about the needs and interests of your audience.

Innovation is a mousetrap. The first innovator usually gets whacked, but the second one gets free cheese.

– Reed Markham

Being first is great for visibility: We all remember the first man to walk on the moon, for example, but not many people remember the second. (It was Buzz Aldrin in case you’re curious.)  However in business, and in education, being the first to create something involves a tremendous amount of groundbreaking work, dealing with lots of nay-sayers, and tripping over lots of unexpected hurdles. It can be far more productive to go find the innovators, learn from their pioneering efforts, and get up to speed at a fraction of the time and resources.

If you build a better mousetrap and don’t tell anyone about it, your competitor with the lousy mousetrap is still going to get all the business.

– Brett Pawlowski

I worked on an unprofitable magazine back in the 90s. Every time we received an infusion from our chief investor, the publisher directed it toward improving the product; such as getting new technology or hiring better writers but never into finding new subscribers. As a result, our readership dwindled, serving fewer and fewer readers with better and better content. Even the best mousetrap is useless if no one knows about it. Sometimes the best approach, as Guy Kawasaki says, is “ready, fire, aim” – get out there with something good enough and look for real-world feedback before you invest more time in developing your product or service.

What’s the takeaway for educators? Quality is important, but it can’t happen in a vacuum. Make sure you’re meeting a real need; make sure you’re not reinventing the wheel (or the mousetrap); and put your efforts into action, with as wide an audience as you can find, so the world doesn’t pass you and your unknown initiative by.

Brett Pawlowski is Executive Vice President of NC3T, the National Center for College and Career Transitions ( NC3T provides planning, coaching, technical assistance and tools to help community-based leadership teams plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education.

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